Archive | February 2013

Discourse Theory

I am reading about discourse theory. In particular, Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) theory, but I am not reading the original (yet). I never seem to be reading original work… Anyways, this is a theory that understands all social phenomena as discursive constructions. (It’s the next chapter in the Phillips & Jørgensen book.) Within this theory, subjects are understood as subject positions within a discursive structure. They are always fragmented, because they have multiple identities, and this is what decenters them. All this thinking about discourse and identity has me noticing discourse and identities everywhere! While reading this chapter, I was reminded of a text I once forced a child to write.

You see, in another life I was an elementary school teacher, teaching a combined grade 4/5 class. We had just completed a unit on human rights, where we had explored issues of racism, homophobia, children’s rights, sexism, etc. And lo and behold, a little boy calls his friend gay, as an insult. He was a nice kid, and his writing skills were good enough that I ordered him to write an essay about why the word gay is not an insult. (Notice how I just discursively constructed the boy as nice, and a good student. I didn’t tell you he had many friends, or that his parents had immigrated to Canada shortly before he was born, or that he was an only child…)

Looking back I would never force a kid to write what I think he should believe, but people change, I’ll give my 20-something self a break. I kept the essay because I found it hilarious, but all this reading and discussing of discourses made me think of it again, and I dug it up for analysis. Take a look:

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With my limited understanding of discourse theory, I notice three important signifiers here: gay, fathers and mothers. First of all, my young author constructs being gay as a choice, and there is a subtext of having the right to make this choice. Notice how making fun of friends by calling them gay is described as “not cool,” “not fun,” and “it can hurt their feelings.” I wonder if there was some resistance going on here, if he did indeed find making fun of his friends “cool” and “fun.” He also mentions being proud. I wonder if the gay pride discourse (this was in a city with a very gay presence) had made its way into the text.

Within the classroom context, I, as his teacher (and my human rights unit) had recently challenged what until then he understood as a normal or natural family. So this boy used the discourses he already associated with fathers and mothers to conceive of an alternate family structure: one where two moms, or two dads, are just like one, only doubled. Men, and dads, like sports and take you to exciting places. Women, and moms, cook delicious stuff, and like shopping, and “other things too.” I particularly appreciate the “other things too,” as there seems to be a discourse about men not being able to understand women going on there.

Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory is also really helpful in helping me understand a dilemma I have had in practice, reconciling the ideas of post-developmental (Edwards, 2009) views of childhood and early childhood education with early intervention for children with special needs. The post-developmental discourse views all children as rich or at-promise (as opposed to some kids as at-risk) (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2007; Swadener & Lubeck, 1995), rejects the deficit-oriented way of comparing children to a predetermined list of milestones they should achieve by specific age, and suggests that we miss who the child is when we divide them into developmental spheres (cognitive, socio-emotional, motor, etc.). I agree with all of that, as a teacher and a parent. But, part of my job as an early childhood consultant is to support the inclusion of children with special needs or difficult behaviour into childcare centres. In a collaborative process with parents and educators, we discuss the child’s strengths, interests and needs in order to adapt the situation, and put interventions into place that will help the child develop in areas where he or she is different from the other kids. These two ways of viewing children can be seen as competing discourses, that Laclau and Mouffe would call antagonisms. While one can say that the hegemony of the developmental view of children, the developmental psychology discourse that has dominated early education since the 1960s, is slowly being replaced in many parts of the world by post-developmentalism (and a number of Canadian provinces, but not Quebec), I want to know if there is a way for them to co-exist – post-developmental theories don’t seem to acknowledge that some kids need extra support, but the educators and the parents see this as a very pressing need. I think I just found the topic for my post-doc. I wonder if this question has already been explored? I’m off to do some research! And to read the next chapter on critical discourse analysis.

References (who blogs in APA style? What is wrong with me?)

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation, (Second Edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Edwards, S. (2009). Beyond Developmentalism. In S. Edwards & J. Nuttal (Eds.). Professional Learning in Early Childhood Settings (pp.81-96), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Phillips, L. & Jørgensen, M.W. & (2002). Discoure Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage.

Swadener, B.B. & Lubeck, S. (Eds.) (1995). Children and Families “At Promise” : Deconstructing the Discourse of Risk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

The more I learn, the less I know….

I just realized something: PhD stands for doctor of philosophy (duh!), so now would be the appropriate time to read philosophy. In this week’s episode, I continue questioning this idea of the knowing, unknowing, or defended subject by thinking about 2 texts. One is a book on discourse analysis (Phillips & Jørgensen, 2002), the other the introductory chapter to a book on narrative research (Squire, Andrews & Tamboukou, 2008).

Phillips & Jørgensen trace the origins of the unknowing subject through whom discourse reveals itself to Foucault. According to these authors, discourse analysis (which can be based on either structural or poststructural understandings) views the subject’s agency as limited by certain features of particular texts. However, as many discourses co-exist, subjects have a variety of options open to them. The idea, also discussed in Elizabeth St-Pierre’s piece (see last post) is that the subject is decentred. What exactly does that mean? Phillips & Jørgensen say that the subject is “created in discourses” (p.17) but how much room they have to maneuver depends on which theory (or in their case, which type of critical discourse analysis) one ascribes to. They call this the relationship between structure and agent. People either use discourses to create new possibilities, functioning as “agents of discursive and cultural change “ (p.17) or they don’t…they are simply governed by ideologies that determine what and how they can say.

When it comes to engaging with these different ideas, I have no formal background whatsoever in philosophy. I don’t know how one is “supposed” to decide amongst these competing ideas except by deciding which one resonates with my personal interpretation of the world and my own experiences. Am I supposed to back up my opinions with proof or a complicated argument? I find the idea that humans are unable to create new possibilities within or in response to one or multiple discourses kind of hopeless. In don’t believe the world is getting any better, or any worse, but it does change, and if discourses change, aren’t they created by people? My prof says discourses arise in a particular time and place, because the socio-historical conditions allow that discourse to emerge, but if we look at history, some discourses that were radical, controversial, downright dangerous is a particular era were still expressed in that era. They may have been marginalized or repressed, but somebody thought of them, and sometimes they were even written down or recorded. Sometimes (I like to imagine) centuries passed before a particular society was ready to accept that discourse…So I guess I believe in the first option, that we use discourses to create new possibilities.

Phillips & Jørgensen go on to map critical discourse theorists on a continuum from those interested in abstract discourses circulating in a society to everyday discursive practices situated in talk and texts. Which makes me wonder whether you choose the theory that best matches your research question, or personal interest.

Squire, Andrews and Tamboukou (2008) propose that narrative research can indeed be undertaken from a poststructuralist position. This stands in contrast to Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) who argue that there is a clear border between narrative and postmodern, poststructural inquiry, which they label ‘formalistic,’ and  Spector-Mersel (2010), who suggests that narrative has its very own paradigm. Squire and company give a great rationale for doing narrative research, “we frame our research in terms of narrative because we believe that by doing so we are able to see different and sometimes contradictory layers of meaning, to bring them into useful dialogue with each other, and to understand more about individual and social change.”  They also explain that narratives are treated as “modes of resistance to existing structures of power” (p.4). I think it assuages my conscious to imagine that the research I do is an extension of the activism I used to do, even if I am not completely sure that research can actually lead to societal change and social justice.

Squire and her colleagues argue that the field of narrative research is traversed by “theoretical fault lines” (p.3), based on its divergent beginnings, between humanist approaches to psychology and sociology and poststructuralist, postmodern, psychoanalytic and deconstructionist approaches to the humanities. And the biggest difference between these 2 traditions is ….(insert drum roll)…the position of the subject! Does the storyteller tell the story? Or is the storyteller told by the story? They state that it is contradictory to treat the narrative as socially constructed as subject to multiple interpretations while treating the subject as singular and unified. The contradictions multiply when attempting to make sense of narratives and when attempting to view narrative research as emancipatory.

Similarly fascinating for me are particular methodologies that span the divide between post-structuralism and narratology. For example, Tamboukou (2008) has a chapter on using Foucauldian discourse analysis within a narrative inquiry, and narrative research has been undertaken from poststructural positions (e.g., Burman, 2003; Edley, 2002; Parker, 2004; Tamboukou, 2003). I look forward to reading these sometime soon…I’ll be sure to keep you updated J

My last question for today has to do with ontological/epistemological positioning and research. What I am trying to figure out is how to position myself in an academic culture that is pretty positivist, and where my committee members caution me not to be too…I can’t remember how they put it, but not to be too direct in my criticism of institutions and structures. If I believe, quite strongly, that something needs to be criticized, I should basically be polite until I have a tenured position. In a related question, I find myself working with early childhood researchers who do a lot of quantitative research and I am often invited to participate. The early childhood reconceptualists are not that numerous in this city, so my choice is to work with researchers who take a critical viewpoint but not exactly in my field (hence the historical archive internship), or those in my field who are not openly critical. I wonder about my reputation as an academic. While my committee members worry that I will be pigeonholed as a wacko (that’s my own interpretation), I worry that the people whose work I respect and am inspired by will think I am a sellout or less than trustworthy because my name appears on research from such a variety of philosophical paradigms. What do you think readers?

References (the ones I read, the others I need to look up and read myself!)

Clandinin, D.J. et Connelly, F.M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry : Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco : Jossey Bass.

Phillips, L. & Jørgensen, M.W. & (2002). Discoure Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage.

Spector-Mersel, G. (2010). Narrative research : Time for a paradigme.  Narrative Inquiry, 20(1), 204-224. doi : 10.1075/ni.20.1.10spe

Squire, Andrews & Tamboukou (2008). What is narrative research? In M. Andrews, C. Squire and M. Tamboukou (eds.), Doing Narrative Research (pp.1-21). Los Angeles: Sage.

The non-knowing subject

Readers, if you are an education student at the MA or PhD level, I would love to know where postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy are situated in your department. Where I am, these concepts seem to be at the margins most of the time. After reading Beyond Quality by Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007) a few years ago, I have been pretty intrigued by any research or theory that connects early childhood education to postmodern philosophy and to movements for social justice. The course I am taking on qualitative methodologies allows me to read about these theories more broadly, and most excitingly, to talk to someone other than a book (or colleagues who haven’t read these books and articles) about these theories. One of the things I have learned is that poststructuralists (at least according to my professor) don’t believe in the knowing, rationale subject, who is able to provide information on his or her experiences. However, the article I just read by Elizabeth St. Pierre (2000) suggests that the poststructuralist position is a bit more complicated than that. I have only read one article on this topic so far, but what I understand is that the poststructural subject is both an active agent who is constantly decoding and recoding her identity within “discursive formations and cultural practice” (p.504), as well as subjected to normalizing and oppressive structures and discourse. The individual subject is also capable of resistance within power relations, regardless of their social positioning.

My professor says that because he doesn’t believe in the knowing subject, he only interrogates discourses, not individuals. My problem is that I like talking to people, and I was traumatized by a research internship where I spent 135 hours all myself in the basement archives of a school board (more on that some other time). Also, documents were written by individuals, so I figure it’s the type of analysis that is important here, not whether you analyze interviews or documents. As I am situating my doctoral project within a narrative paradigm, and not poststructuralism, I was very excited to read about the defended subject in a chapter by Hollway and Jefferson (2008). According to these authors, individuals are not capable of describing their experiences as they lived them, because memory is filtered through our emotions; in particular, people tend to forget or modify experiences that cause them anxiety. This idea makes sense to me intuitively, but Hollway and Jefferson base their ideas on psychoanalytical and Gestalt theory, and propose a process of free association interviewing that they suggest allows them to bypass peoples’ unconscious defenses to get at the heart of their concerns and their stories.

I don’t know very much about psychoanalytic or Gestalt theory, but I have a sense that they wouldn’t be compatible with poststructuralism, which is ok because I am not doing poststructuralist research – I would have to take  a few years out and just read philosophy, which I would love to do eventually, but I am very excited about the narrative idea that we understand life through stories.

What do you think readers? First of all, do you have an opinion on whether talking to live humans can lead to useful research with the potential for social change, and second of all, how do you understand the subject in your research?

References, for those who are interested:

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation, (Second Edition). London and New York: Routledge

Hollway, W. & Jefferson, T. (2008). The free association narrative interview method. In L.M. Given, (Ed.) The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, (pp. 296–315), Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage.

St. Pierre, E.A. (2000). Poststrutural feminism in education: An overview. Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5), 477-515. Retrieved from:

Welcome to my blog!

Hi there,

First of all, let me take a few moments to introduce myself, and this blog.

I am a second year PhD student in Education at a large French-speaking university in Quebec. I speak English as a first language and have done all my other schooling in English, so I figured why not add an extra challenge to this PhD endeavor and become more bilingual in the process. I am 39 years old; I have 2 kids and a partner, no pets. I am actually pretty afraid of most animals, especially of the idea of having them in my house, because I worry that they will get pissed off about their captivity and attack us, and I have no desire to do any extra vacuuming either, but I digress…I have been a preschool and elementary teacher, taught early childhood education at the post-secondary level, and am still an early childhood consultant on a very part-time basis.

I have been inspired by The Thesis Whisperer, and other PhD student blogs, but really have no idea how people have time to blog and work and study. Luckily, I am taking this amazing class (at a different university, more on that later), and we have a digital storytelling assignment. Hopefully this blog is an example of digital storytelling, and at least one person will read it!

My thesis project is going to be a narrative case study focusing on parent-educator and parent-teacher relationships during the transition to kindergarten in marginalized communities. I am at the point in my studies where I am finalizing the first 3 chapters, and hope to submit my proposal early next Fall. I am also currently taking my last few classes: a seminar focused on methodology, an advanced qualitative methodology class, and a reading course.

The way I envision this blog at the moment is like a reflexive journal, only less honest, because it’s public. My first post is on the non-knowing subject.